Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Delegating to the Proprietaries
I read the Chronicle piece on the University of North Texas at Dallas, and had to sigh. UNT-Dallas is styling itself a disruptive innovation, complete with references to Clayton Christensen and BYU-Idaho. Its breakthroughs include a year-round teaching calendar, a narrowly-focused career-driven curriculum, and recruitment of younger and more upscale students. To the future!
Those are all variations on conventional practice. Work speedups -- the twelve-month calendar -- are not conceptual breakthroughs. Narrow, career-focused curricula have existed for decades. And it’s hardly groundbreaking to notice that affluent 19 year olds are easier to serve, in many ways, than 30 year olds attending part time.
Bluntly, my former employer -- Proprietary U -- did all of those things back in the 1990’s. Clayton Christensen wasn’t there, but I was. I taught full-time, twelve months a year, as did everyone else. The place was resolutely career-focused. And it recruited with legendary vigor.
Imitating the for-profits is not the way to go. I’m thinking we need to try a very different direction.
To this point, most people in traditional higher ed have regarded the for-profits, if at all, as interlopers or, at best, competitors. What if, instead, we regarded them as a permanent feature of the higher ed landscape? How might we deal with them?
Delegate. Let them do what they do best, and let public higher ed do what it does best.
Here’s what that might mean:
Let the for-profits handle the really high-cost vocational programs. It’s their niche, they’re (sometimes) good at it, and they can charge enough to sustain themselves while doing it.
Let community colleges focus on their historic strength: general education. Let us do the transferable gen eds that we do so well, and cheaply, and leave the difficult high-cost stuff to the folks who can charge accordingly.
This might look like surrender, but I think of it as specialization. Since community colleges have a long history of teaching, say, English composition, let us focus on that. Let us focus on the stuff that we do more of than anybody else, so we can get better at it. Let the for-profits do what they do best, and let the cc’s do what the cc’s do best.
This position puts me outside the usual camps. One camp says that the way to compete with the for-profits is to do it all. Another says that we should become more like them, and focus more intensely on workforce training. I’m thinking those are both basically doomed. The way to thrive in the new normal is not to try to be great at everything; the world is just too big. Instead, it’s to find something you do really well, and own that. Let the for-profits handle HVAC repair and dental hygiene; let the community colleges do the first two years of four year degrees.
Wise and worldly readers, what say you? Does this seem sustainable, or is this just surrender by another name? Is there a better way that doesn’t involve the magical appearance of the money fairy?
CC's teach gen ed courses well. I agree. Specialize.
In my neck of the woods, the CC's ride on their reputation for good technical-vocational programs. If we were looking only at the Gen Ed parts of the curriculum, the proportion that is remedial (and the low completion rates) would damage the institution's reputation.
The problem is that English Composition isn't sexy and the admins want sexy. We have grown by accretion, not by recruiting and now the accretion disk is drying up. The received wisdom is that you have to have new programs to get more students in this kind of atmosphere. But, if we were to jettison the Career/Technical Ed. programs, strengthen our gen ed offerings and RECRUIT, we could do fairly well.
My other thought is that this would work best if it were formalized with the existing four-year state colleges and universities. My understanding is that the Pennsylvania system is (was?) more or less organized along these lines. Only a relatively small number of students took all four years of courses on the main campus; the rest started out in branch campuses and then transferred to the main campus for their last two years. It's been quite a while since I lived in Pennsylvania, so I don't know how well this system is holding up.
I'll also add that the idea of a 12 month calendar is as old as the trimester system that one major R1 had in my youth. They were very close to the ideal of three equal-sized "semesters" during the year, but didn't split them into "semi"-semesters to fill in the gaps like I would advocate for a CC. Others had a system that was literally four "quarters", which were all the same number of weeks.
The summer quarter also started right after HS got out, offering other opportunities.
One thing that is possible in such a system, but actually illegal (meaning set by state law, not our local non-union contract) at my CC, is to have an annual contract that skips one semester of your choice. I and other faculty would love to teach a "trailer" sequence that runs through the summer, but would burn out like DD says he did if we couldn't trade a full summer term for an equal length fall or spring term.
Although I agree with your concept, I think a major flaw in the current funding system is that state universities get twice as much per student for teaching freshmen and sophomore classes as we do, sometimes with the same instructors. We should get the same for the same classes, and they should admit the actual cost of upper division and -- more likely -- graduate education at mediocre state.
Now if you got a system that included expensive programs like Nursing in the second tier (plausible since they are the licensing equivalent to the upper division nursing classes at a university), that might help the other problem as well.
Yes, I know it is an extreme understatement to say "doing this would not be easy". Our alleged partners at the universities would be most unhappy with any CC that proposed this.